Do you know your Bourbon from your Scotch? Your blended whisky from your single malt?
To the uninitiated, whisky (or whiskey as it's spelled in Ireland and the USA) can seem like a complicated subject. But fear not, here's a wee dram-sized guide to ease you into the fascinating world of whisky.
So, what is whisky?
Let’s start with the basics. Whisky is an oak-aged spirit made from grains. Barley, corn, rye or even wheat can be used as a base. The grains are milled and heated in water to release the sugars for fermentation. This liquid, known as the ‘wash’, is then distilled and, last but not least, matured in oak barrels for two to thirty years.
The process results in a strong, complex and characterful spirit. As with wine, provenance and producer’s choices play a big role in the end-product’s taste and aromas.
There are four main countries that produce whisky, each with their own unique styles and methods; Scotland, America, Ireland and Japan.
What's a single malt and a blend?
Anybody serious about their whisky would probably swear by single malts. Single malts are whiskies made by a single distillery and are prized for their character and distinct flavour. They are a connoisseur’s pride and the ultimate expression of a distillery’s water sources, climate, stills and choice of casks for maturation.
On the other hand, blended whiskies are typically more approachable. As their name suggests, they are a blend of whiskies from several distilleries that are carefully crafted by a master blender to create a product that is balanced and consistent with the brand’s style.
Perhaps the most famed whisky of all, Scotch has a unique heritage that stretches back over 500 years. When the first taxes were introduced on Scotch in 1644, whisky smuggling and illegal distilling became standard practice, with a gobsmacking 14,000 illicit stills confiscated a year by the 1820s. It would be easy to write a thesis about Scotch, but you probably don’t want to read that, so here’s a short and sweet look at this most enticing style of whisky.
Scotch is strongly protected and regulated, a bit like Champagne in France. The essentials to understand are that it must be matured on Scottish soil and in oak casks for at least three years and have a minimum alcohol strength of 40%.
Scotland’s most important Scotch producing regions are the Lowlands, Islay, Speyside and the Highlands, each offering a variety of flavours and styles.
If you’re a novice or haven’t set your heart on Scotch yet, then the Lowlands (surrounding Glasgow and Edinburgh) is a great place to start. Lowland whiskies are the lightest Scotch of all and display delicious floral and citrusy aromas with a sweet finish. Start sampling with Auchentoshan.
Islay whiskies are generally best suited to more experienced palates. Famed for their powerful peated flavours, they have lots of smoky character and sometimes a seaweed or iodine tone. Ardbeg and Bruichladdich are excellent examples of this region.
Speyside is the smallest region of all but is simply heaven for any whisky lover, hosting the largest number of distilleries in the country. They produce particularly elegant styles of whiskies ranging from light and grassy ‘lunchtime whiskies’ such as Glenlivet, to the rich and sweet Macallan and Glenrothes.
The largest whisky region, the Highlands, is home to some of the most renowned distilleries such as Glenmorangie, Dalmore and Dalwhinnie. Whiskies from the Highlands tend to be intensely flavoured with vanilla and dried fruit aromas with a hint of peat.
The long history of whisky is strongly linked to Ireland. It is actually still discussed between historians and experts whether Ireland or Scotland is whisky’s true birthplace. What’s for sure is that Irish whisky has undergone a renaissance in recent times with the number of inventive young distilleries multiplying across the country.
The rules surrounding Irish whiskies aren’t as strict as they are for Scotch and therefore lead to varying styles. They are synonymous with innovation and blending creativity and are generally unpeated, so not as smoky in flavour as some of their Scottish counterparts.
Excellent examples of Irish whiskey include Jameson, Bushmills and Midleton.
Although North America has a history of cultivating cereal crops stretching back to the seventeenth century, it wasn’t until the arrival of Scots-Irish and German immigrants a century later that the story of American whisky began. There are two main types to consider for someone looking to explore American whiskey.
Bourbon is without a doubt America’s most popular whisky. It can be produced anywhere in the country, but must be made from at least 51% corn mixed with other grains.
In terms of taste, it varies greatly based on the blend and ageing choices but tends to have a sweet character with oak giving it a red hue and signature notes of vanilla, honey, coconut and sweet spice. At the more grain-forward end of the spectrum, Bourbon offers flavours of white pepper, spice and corn.
Like Bourbon, Tennessee whisky must be made from a mash of at least 51% corn and aged in new charred oak. However, it differs on two points. Firstly, it must be made in Tennessee, and secondly it must be filtered through sugar maple charcoal before ageing, giving it extra smoothness and character. It has a similar taste profile to Bourbon, but is a little lighter in style.
Jack Daniel's is Tennessee's most prevalent household name.
The latest addition to the global whisky scene comes from Japan. It all started at the beginning of the twentieth century as pioneers set out on a journey to Scotland to learn about Scotch. On their return to Japan, they founded the first whisky distillery Yamazaki in 1923 and Nikka in 1934, Japan’s biggest whisky producers.
Japanese whisky has taken the world by storm, having received many world standard awards since the 2000s. From “Best in the World” to “Best of the Best”, numerous plaudits have signalled Japan as top of the game in the world of exceptional whisky.
Thanks to flexible laws and a variety of climates, Japanese distilleries are capable of producing a wide array of styles each year from light and floral to oily and peated.
While closely linked to the flavour spectrum of Scotch, Japanese whiskies have a reputation for being more rounded, delicate and perfumed as a result, in part, to the purity of their water and the quality of their casks. This distinctive smoothness makes them the perfect starting point for non-whisky drinkers.
Given its allure, it is perhaps not surprising that the demand for Japanese whisky has peaked. With whisky's long maturation times, distilleries are now struggling to keep up with the thirst of whisky enthusiasts. From distillery employees working double shifts to brands limiting their ranges, Japanese whisky is now a victim of its own success. Old single malts and blends are becoming harder and harder to find, so when you do meet a 12-year old Yamazaki or older, it’s better to jump on it!
There you have it - a quick guide to the water of life, enough to help you explore some different styles or at least smash your next online pub quiz. If this has got you thinking about whisky, why not have a browse of our exciting range.
Did you like this blog? Let us know in the comments which is your whisky of choice.
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